Most people I know would say they hate politics. They’re cynical at best, unwilling to engage at worst. I say “at worst” because this is a democracy and democracies are dependent on an engaged electorate, but I understand why turning a blind eye feels better sometimes.
Politics can be infuriating for people who like to live their lives based on facts because politics—for all the numbers thrown around by politicians and pundits—is almost decidedly not based on facts.
Politics is based on tribal instincts and feeling.
This article by Ezra Klein, published on his new venture, Vox, delicately titled, “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” sheds some light on this:
There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics. It sits hopefully at the base of almost every speech, every op-ed, every article, and every panel discussion. It courses through the Constitution and is a constant in President Obama’s most stirring addresses. It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.
It’s a seductive model. It suggests our fellow countrymen aren’t wrong so much as they’re misguided, or ignorant, or — most appealingly — misled by scoundrels from the other party. It holds that our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all. The theory is particularly prevalent in Washington, where partisans devote enormous amounts of energy to persuading each other that there’s really a right answer to the difficult questions in American politics — and that they have it.
But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.
Imagine what would happen to, say, Sean Hannity if he decided tomorrow that climate change was the central threat facing the planet. Initially, his viewers would think he was joking. But soon, they’d begin calling in furiously. Some would organize boycotts of his program. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of professional climate skeptics would begin angrily refuting Hannity’s new crusade. Many of Hannity’s friends in the conservative media world would back away from him, and some would seek advantage by denouncing him. Some of the politicians he respects would be furious at his betrayal of the cause. He would lose friendships, viewers, and money. He could ultimately lose his job. And along the way he would cause himself immense personal pain as he systematically alienated his closest political and professional allies. The world would have to update its understanding of who Sean Hannity is and what he believes, and so too would Sean Hannity. And changing your identity is a psychologically brutal process.
Kahan doesn’t find it strange that we react to threatening information by mobilizing our intellectual artillery to destroy it. He thinks it’s strange that we would expect rational people to do anything else. “Nothing any ordinary member of the public personally believes about the existence, causes, or likely consequences of global warming will affect the risk that climate changes poses to her, or to anyone or anything she cares about,” Kahan writes. “However, if she forms the wrong position on climate change relative to the one that people with whom she has a close affinity — and on whose high regard and support she depends on in myriad ways in her daily life — she could suffer extremely unpleasant consequences, from shunning to the loss of employment.”
Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: “What we believe about the facts,” he writes, “tells us who we are.”
The conclusion they come to is that you don’t win in politics by crafting a better argument. A better argument often just strengthens your opponent’s will to prove you wrong. No, to win in politics, you craft a better system—one that people can experience firsthand. One that, even if people “disagree” with on a gut level, their experience tells them that it’s working. It’s better than the system they were in before.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare) seems to be a good example of that.
With 52.4% of the country disapproving four years out, the ACA is a wildly unpopular piece of legislation. One that Obama’s own approval rating is taking a beating over (foreign policy “blunders” like Syria and Crimea notwithstanding).
But approval numbers are politics. The effectiveness of the law, however, that’s policy. And policy is where that new system is being built.
So how’s Obamacare doing on the systems front? In short: really well.
The number of uninsured Americans is 15.6% this year—the lowest levels since 2008.
7.1 million people applied for health care through the healthcare.gov exchange system (the goal was 7 million).
Health care costs have been growing at a record slow pace for the past four years (and seem to be continuing down that path).
Oh, and because of the combined effect of Obamacare’s individual mandate (it’s most unpopular provision), the state and federal healthcare exchanges, and Medicaid expansion, an estimated 13.5-26.6 million people have just gained access to healthcare.
So the politics say this is a bad law. The Democrats will probably take a “shellacking” in the midterm elections this year because of the law’s unpopularity, and Obama will be a lame duck in office for his last two years, making changes via executive order and ignoring the Congress, just like most other modern presidents.
That’s because, as Klein’s article on Vox illustrates, telling someone that 13.5 million Americans got access to affordable healthcare isn’t the same as being one of the people who got access to a system they were previously locked out of due to a pre-existing condition or a price barrier.
But the policy in effect—i.e. people’s firsthand experience—say this law is sticking around.
Politics is polling; it’s about being right.
Policy is about doing what’s right. And that’s nothing to be cynical about.